How is the fear of being a "cuckold" relevant to William Shakespeare's Othello?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In William Shakespeare’s play Othello, one of the title character’s main fears is that he will be made a “cuckold.” In other words, he fears that his wife will have sex with him behind his back and perhaps even bear the children of another man.

Fear of cuckoldry is a very widespread theme in medieval and Renaissance English literature. In fact, fear of cuckoldry was also a widespread fear in English society during those eras. Men often regarded their wives as possessions. Once men and women were married, divorce was almost impossible, especially since it was often difficult if not impossible to prove that one had been cuckolded. If one were cuckolded and one’s wife bore another man’s child, one might spend decades rearing that child and passing on one’s money and property to that child without ever knowing that one had been sexually deceived.

The word “cuckold,” in fact, alludes to the habits of the cuckoo bird, which often laid its eggs in another bird’s nest, so that that bird would unwittingly go to the trouble of hatching the cuckoo’s eggs and raising the cuckoo’s chicks.

In Othello, Iago constantly plays on Othello’s fear that Desdemona is cuckolding Othello by having sex with the young and handsome Michael Cassio. Ironically, Iago himself expresses the worry that he may have been cuckolded by Othello – that Othello has secretly had sex with Iago’s wife, Emilia. Although nothing in the play strongly supports Iago’s worries in this regard, Iago masterfully succeeds in convincing Othello that the latter is being cuckolded by Desdemona, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Early in the play, Iago tells Roderigo, who yearns for Desdemona, that

if thou canst cuckold him [that is, Othello] , thou dost 
thyself a pleasure, me a sport.

It is typical of Iago’s base materialism that he focuses on the “pleasure” of an illicit sexual act. Later, once he has implanted in Othello the idea that Desdemona may be having sex behind Othello’s back, Iago says, in his brazenly dishonest way,

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; 
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock 
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss 
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; 
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er 
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

In other words, Iago warns Othello not to give in to jealousy (although this is precisely what Iago hopes will happen). He also tells Othello that if a cuckold knows for sure that he is being cuckolded by someone, he can hate the person(s) who are cuckolding him. The worst, most tormenting fate is to suspect that one is being cuckolded but to have no certain proof.

Later, in the third of four explicit references to cuckoldry in the play, Othello exclaims about Desdemona,

I will chop her into messes: cuckold me!

Finally, in the fourth overt reference to being cuckolded, it is ironically Iago’s own wife who suggests that cuckolding one’s husband might not be such a bad thing after all:

. . . who would 
not make her husband a cuckold to make him a 
monarch [if cuckolding him meant giving him command of the whole world] ?

Throughout the play, then, cuckoldry is a persistent, prominent theme.

Something extra: For obvious reasons, the theme of cuckoldry in Othelloinvites attention from "Darwinian" theories of literary criticism, which have become increasingly prominent in literary studies.